My blog is not a travel diary. This blog exists to share my experiences going bare-chested around the United States and to examine those experiences for deeper meaning. I say this because this entry about what I learned from a week in South Beach will at first feel like a negative comment on Trip Advisor. But bear with me please, because explaining what I learned in South Beach requires context.
For years I’ve been hearing reports about South Beach allowing women to go bare-chested, like this European oasis tucked in the heart of the conservative south. So with a foot of snow on the ground and temperatures below zero, we decided on short notice to go visit some friends and family in the southern U.S., with a few days in South Beach to see for ourselves what all the fuss was about.
It was… not what I expected.
In fact I have to say after five days, I’m not much of a fan of Miami. Which breaks my heart because I really wanted it to be what the stories said it was. And it really breaks my heart because there are some absolutely amazing things going on in Miami, like the Wynwood Walls arts district and the critical mass bike rides and the sheer beauty of the Promenade, the water and the city lights. There were good parts, to be sure. But what breaks my heart in all of this is that for all of the things in Miami that really speak to me, in the balance I actually spent most of the week feeling quite vulnerable and unsafe and the negatives outweighed the positives.
Those that follow my blog will understand what it means for me to say this… because I don’t scare easily and I really fight to find the positive in my experiences.
But what we experienced was a city (in Miami and Miami Beach) overwhelmed by a culture of alcohol consumption, drugs, clubbing, fights and violence, status and hyper-sexualization. It felt very frenetic and at times the city felt like that moment at a high school football game when you get that feeling that something is about to go down and you’re about to be stuck right in the middle of it and the two cops sitting at the gate aren’t going to be able to do a thing about it.
I’m not saying this to disrespect Miami or to discourage anyone from going there. But in order to understand my feelings on going topfree there, one must understand what I was feeling and experiencing.
Case in point… one evening Jeff and I were riding our bikes on the Promenade, which is a very long, beautiful, clean, winding path that runs between the buildings and the beach, sort of like a boardwalk but functioning as a thoroughfare for walkers, cyclists and skaters. It is well-lit and spotless. In all my travels I have never experienced its equal. Truly.
We came to a woman holding her head, staggering around beside a wrecked (and very expensive) bicycle. Her cable lock was wrapped around her front axle and her rear wheel was at least 50 feet away from the rest of the bicycle. We tried to talk to her but she wasn’t coherent. We called 911. This is in the middle of Art Deco Weekend which is basically a street festival. Ocean Drive was closed to traffic and vendor booths stretched ten blocks or more. There were police all over the place. Still, it took ten minutes for the ambulance to arrive and another five for the first police officer to arrive. We watched from a distance as the EMS crew talked to her for about 2 minutes from about 15 feet away. No physical examination at all. The police officer did the same. Then they left her there, wrecked bike and all. When they came to talk to us (as the reporting party) they shrugged and said simply, “Can’t make her go.” Which of course is completely wrong. A person with a head injury or who has been drugged or whatever can certainly be taken to the hospital without expressed consent. It’s the job of EMS and police to make those decisions. We asked them if we could help her put her bike back together and they all said in unison, no. The cop said the best thing for her was to get over her drunkenness without a working bicycle. Nevertheless, after they left we asked her if she wanted help. She waved us off. We tried again, she waved us off again.
What more could we do? From there we rode about four blocks to our accommodations, through ridiculously loud club music pumping out in the street and thousands of partiers milling around…and turned the corner right into a group of about ten well-dressed, thickly-muscled men surrounding a solitary man. We then witnessed this one man get beaten by the group of men around him. One guy punched him in the face, he fell to the ground where another man jumped into the air to stomp the back of his head into the pavement, a third man elbowed him in the forehead as he staggered to his feet.
We were watching all this from the middle of an intersection. In one direction we could see this group beating this man. In the other direction we could see a group of police and security personnel. I called out, “There’s a fight! A man is being beaten over here!” We were both pointing. The entire group of police and security sort of craned their heads and went back to their conversations. The victim of the beating ran right past us clutching his face, bleeding from the nose and eye, followed shortly thereafter by the group of guys walking slowly, carefree, laughing and high-fiving and generally acting puffed up and proud of themselves. We looked from them to the police and back. No one did anything.
Another day I had a man approach me to tell me he wanted to have sex with me in front of my husband and piss in my mouth. Another day we watched a group of about 2000 high schoolers, 14-18 years old, (it was MLK day and school was out) gather on the beach, openly drinking and smoking marijuana, refuse to disperse when a dozen police cars showed up to disperse them. An hour later they were still there, puking in the sand. (Later that day there was a shooting at an MLK celebration elsewhere in the city.)
Out of curiosity, while standing there watching all these kids, I approached one of the police officers and said, “Are women allowed to be bare-chested in Miami Beach?” He laughed and said, “No. But we tolerate it on the beach. If a topless woman goes outside what we call the berm, (the dune separating the beach from the Promenade) we’d probably arrest her.” He said this with a straight face, while watching several hundred underage kids drinking and smoking weed (I don’t have a problem with marijuana, for the record, but still.)
Nevertheless, I did go bare-chested on the beach. I saw only one other bare-chested woman on the beach the entire week. Thongs were everywhere though, interestingly. Mothers in their 40’s wore thongs with their teen sons and daughters present. Young teen girls, 13, 14 years old, wore thongs with their parents and siblings and peers. We watched a couple of these mothers preening and asking their boys to take pictures of them, posing in provocative ways, making sure they looked just so. “Don’t make me look fat! Do I look fat?” I also had a man set up an enormous telephoto lens and photograph me from about 100 yards away. Another man sat near me and masturbated.
But I also met the wonderful family from the first photo, which is an absolute highlight among my topfree experiences, and the lovely young woman pictured below who was super excited to see me walking the tide line bare-chested and ask me to take a photo with her.
I did make several long bare-chested walks on the beach. I must have passed 10,000 people a day, no one said a word. I even walked out past the berm (I mean, come on, how could I not?) I got a few confused looks, but no police. One young woman told me this wasn’t the nude beach. Otherwise no one said anything. I sat on the cement wall facing Ocean Drive for about 15 minutes, eating lunch. Nothing. Looks sometimes, but no police.
So what’s my topfreedom take away from South Beach?
I think it’s to say the obvious… that it’s hard to relax when you don’t feel safe. And watching the police and EMS basically shrug at the outrageous behavior we were seeing made me feel like they had basically given up trying to stop it. It felt like they had seen so much of this behavior that they didn’t see it anymore. It was normalized to their eye. That was very uncomfortable for me. It felt like no one cared about anyone else, like people come to Miami to forget their humanity…
I didn’t feel this way just when I was bare-chested. I felt this way all the time, no matter how I was dressed. With that said I was not sexually assaulted, unless you count the man who kissed my cheek without my permission and told me I tasted “salty” and that he, “mmmmm,” liked that. I was wearing a shirt at the time, for the record. I would have collapsed his windpipe if I didn’t think it would start a riot.
All of this mere days before our pussy-groping president’s inauguration.
I’m trying really hard not to feel like we’ve taken ten steps backwards.